Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Minotaur Opera

Now here is something intriguing and very bold: the tale of Theseus' battle with the Minotaur deep in the Minoan Labyrinth - and of his ill-fated romance with Ariadne daughter of the king of Crete - translated into opera, by renowned British composer Harrison Birtwistle.

Our top Anglophile on the Dante's Heart staff forwarded several reviews of the opera The Minotaur to me today, with some excitement. Here is how the International Herald Tribune describes Birtwistle's opus:

The earliest opera composers looked to Greek myths for the substance of their operas. Four hundred years later, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle obviously thinks they knew what they were doing. Not for him is the practice of basing an opera on a popular play or novel, with its inherent invitation to the audience to measure the new work against its source. Myth, Birtwistle recognizes, can supply just what the opera composer requires: psychological depth and bloodcurdling violence, a point made grippingly clear by his opera "The Minotaur," which had its world premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, last week....

Birtwistle's score is relentlessly modernistic, its astringency serving to underscore the opera's violence and unremitting tension. One did not expect this crusty composer to turn mellow at 73 and he has not done so. His large orchestra includes an enormous percussion section that spills out of the pit with mallet-struck instruments, tom-toms, woodblocks and the like doing heavy duty. This is not music from which one derives much sheer pleasure, but it is intently theatrical.

The opera is not for the faint-hearted, and it is also not for audience members who suffer from histories of violence or traumatic memory, for whom a more triggering production could scarcely be imagined. The opera has all the raw energy and unremitting and insistent tension that one finds in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus or Cormac MacCarthy's Blood Meridian. According to a Reuters article that dubbed the opera (honestly but perhaps reductively) "blood-drenched":

A group of Innocents is sacrificed to the beast in his lair as a crowd around the bull ring bays for blood. One is raped, and vulture-like, screaming Keres tear the hearts from the victims."I think it's a very dark piece," Birtwistle told Reuters before the curtains went up on the eagerly anticipated work.

Most interesting to me is librettist David Harsent's interpretation of the legend, a look at heroes and monsters that is as unflinching as Birtwistle's music:

Harsent wanted to challenge the assumption that the human Minotaur was preferable to the animal in light of the suffering caused by conflicts the world over.

"When he identifies the human side of himself he is not certain he's found something worthy and virtuous," he said.

"I think there are other ways of looking at this -- you might well have it the wrong way around. Look at the man, not the beast. I think the myth stays relevant and stays modern."

He also casts Ariadne as a woman prepared to do anything to escape Crete and Theseus as someone scheming to get rid of her even before he agrees to her plan.

"I don't believe in heroes," Harsent said. "There might be moments of heroism but I don't really believe in heroes."

For more information about the opera, you can read an intelligent review of The Minotaur here at


(On an entirely different note, this is our 100th post on the Dante's Heart blog. We hope that many of those posts were interesting or useful, and we hope that for those of you who have been with us for a while, the journey has been a good one. May we go to many strange and unexpected places together in the coming months!)

No comments: